Shannon Welsh is the buyer and category manager of specialty cheese for Heinen’s Fine Foods.
Culture: How is Heinen’s business set up?
Shannon: Each store has a general manager and they treat their stores as though they were the owners. Category buyers do centralized buying for all stores. “This means learning about the trends in new areas. For instance, when we opened in Chicago, customers asked us about a cheese I’d never heard of called Provel.” (Provel is pasteurized processed brick cheese for pizza made by a division of Kraft. Read this to get the whole goopy Provel history.
Culture: How long has cheese been its own department?
Shannon: About 6 years.
Culture: What’s the average tenure of Heinen’s associates?
Shannon: Hard to say! But we have a grocery buyer who’s been with us for 50 years, and there are many who have been with Heinen’s for almost 30-35 years. Heinen’s offers their employees lots of opportunities for growth and longevity. I’ve done 6 different jobs for Heinen’s in my 15 years with the company!
I graduated with an art history major, French minor; I figured I’d be a teacher. I needed a job right out of college, so I started at Heinen’s as a customer service rep at a florist they used to own called 771-ROSE. I had not grown up with exposure to fine cheeses or wine. I still remember the aha! moment. I was sent [by Heinen’s] to California with our wine buyer, and we planned a visit to Cypress Grove. Mary Keehn was leading the tour. Before our appointment, we went down to the ocean’s edge to put our feet in the water, and when I can back my hand was itching and swollen! Mary mothered me but then immediately put me to work! I laugh now and say that was the moment I was literally bitten by the cheese bug.
Culture: Something we should know about you?
Shannon: I’m a freak about cheese being the right temperature. I cut Parmigiano-Reggiano into 1 ounce pieces and put them in bags and leave them in the cupboard. That way when I need a snack, it’s already at room temp.
Culture: The secret to Heinen’s success?
Shannon: Our people. Our customer service is unmatched. When customers leave our stores they’re in a better mood than when they came in!
Shannon: We’re consistently up year after year, especially in a down economy.
Culture: Number of cheeses in store?
Shannon: It ranges by store, but smaller stores have around 175 varieties, while our larger stores can have between 250 and 300 cheeses at a time.
Culture: Biggest seller by dollar amount?
Shannon: Parmigiano-Reggiano which is hand-selected by us. We put our name on it. We shred, grate, and hand-cut in house.
Culture: Biggest seller by volume?
Shannon: Again, Parmigiano-Reggiano. Food Network has done a tremendous job promoting that cheese and why it’s beats other Parmesans in flavor and quality.
Culture: Number of distributors used in specialty cheese?
Shannon: I use about five. We use Euro USA predominantly because they are right in our own backyard so they are able to respond to our needs very quickly. Plus they have a great portfolio of cheeses and we work together as partners.
Culture: Number of mongers in the store?
Shannon: One in the smaller stores and two in the larger. Sometimes we have to pull from Deli if someone is out.
Culture: Direct buying?
Shannon: We only buy a couple local cheeses direct which get shipped to our warehouse.
Culture: How does Heinen’s select new locations?
Shannon: We look at the demographics. We’ve been only in suburban areas up til now. Early next year we open our first urban location in downtown Cleveland.
Culture: Biggest success?
Shannon: Our people. Tom and Jeff [Heinen] would also say this. Our people are why we succeed.
Culture: Biggest challenge?
Shannon: Staying relevant, especially with all the great retailers we have as our competition. It’s also been interesting going into the Chicago market. But again, our people in Chicago are our best asset and have helped to establish a reputation for having incomparable service and fresh, high-quality products.
Culture: Best example of Heinen’s values?
Shannon: We have BIG wellness initiative at Heinen’s. In fact we have a Chief Medical Officer, Tom Pesek. He’s a holistic physician and he runs seminars for customers and associates. We’re actually incorporating wellness departments within the new stores – drawn into the architecture plans – not just an add on in an aisle. The is a huge movement for us.
Everyone shares in the success of Heinen’s, from the guys who work in our warehouse and drive our trucks to the associates that are on the front lines in the stores. We all work together for the common good of the company. That culture starts at the top with our owners, Tom and Jeff Heinen.
Culture: Any advice for fellow mongers running a shop?
Advice for mongers –
- Educate yourself. Read as much as you can, because you can make a career in cheese. I am living proof.
- Start with being passionate about cheese, but also be passionate about the place where you work. I’ll retire from Heinen’s because I not only love cheese, but I love Heinen’s and want to contribute to their success.
- Ask questions. Cheesemakers and producers, as well as other leaders in the industry are more than willing to help spread knowledge and understanding of all things cheese, you just have to ask.
- Become involved. If you can join the American Cheese Society, do so. It’s invaluable for staying in touch with what’s going on in the industry, and it allows for networking that you simply can’t get anywhere else.
Started in 1929 by Joe Heinen as a butcher store. Over time Heinen’s developed into a full service grocer. Now in the 3rd generation of Heinen Family ownership, Tom and Jeff Heinen preside over 17 Cleveland stores and soon the company’s first ever downtown store slated for early 2015, plus 2 currently in Chicago with another opening in June 2014.
Heinen core values:
- Nurture the Heinen’s ‘mystique’.
- First and always primary, Heinen’s hires associates who love working for Heinen’s; passion for service and product is a key.
- Deliver relevant and high quality food solutions.
- Accept nothing less than excellence (in people, cleanliness, food.)